An American tourist was riding in a taxi in Israel.
As the taxi approached a red light, the tourist was shocked to see the driver drive straight through without even slowing down. Surprised as he was, he didn’t say anything, feeling himself a ‘guest’ and not wanting to make waves.
The trip continued without event until the next intersection.
This time the light was green and, to the American’s dismay, the cab driver brought the vehicle to a grinding halt.
Unable to contain his astonishment, he turns to the driver. “Listen”, he says, “When you went through the red light, I didn’t say anything. But why on earth are you stopping at a green light?” The Israeli driver looks at the American as if he was deranged. “Are you crazy?!” he shouts. “The other guy has a red light! Do you want to get us killed?!”
It would not be a bad idea for contemporary descendants of Ishmael – and for all of us -- to reflect on the individual names of Ishmael’s 12 sons, who all became princes and fathers of Ishmaelite nations.
“These are the names of Ishmael’s sons in order of their birth,” records the Torah in this week’s portion, Chayei Sarah, and it goes on to list them in three groups and in three separate verses(1):
“Ishmael’s firstborn was Nebayoth, Kedar, Adbiel, Mibsam.” Then is the second group of sons: Mishma, Dumah and Massa. Finally, the Torah lists the last five sons: Chadad, Tema, Yetur, Nafish and Kedmah.
The Torah then relates where they lived in the Middle East. It concludes its account – and the entire portion -- by stating these ambiguous words: “They fell in the presence of all their brethren(2).”
What’s the Relevance?
What is this episode telling us? Is it a mere incidental detail? The Torah does not include mere incidental details. We have no idea, for example, what Abraham, Sarah, Isaac or Ishamel looked like. Though the Bible records many genealogical and historical facts, it is fundamentally not a book of history or genealogy, but as its very name “Torah” indicates, it is a book of instruction, a blueprint for human life.
The record of Ishmael’s family members, then, is not merely a record of dry genealogical facts. Rather, like every sentence and word recorded in the Torah, it is part of a roadmap for our lives journeys.
But what is the relevance of the 12 ancient names of Ishmael’s children? And why did Ishmael give his sons these particular names?
One more question: Why does the Torah divide the 12 names into three distinct uneven groups: a group of four, a group of three and a group of five?
The First Twelve-Step Program
The writings of Jewish mysticism explain that these names represent Ishmael’s 12-step program toward living a healthy and well-balanced life. His guide to good living covers the three primary components of life: health, relationships and work.
The first group of Ishmael’s sons, comprised of four names, represents his four-step guide towards good health.
Nebayoth in Hebrew means hollowness(3). This indicates the need to maintain a body that is hollow and clean from trash and substances detrimental to the human organism. The body is not a garbage can. The body must remain “hollow,” free and light, translucent and filled with alacrity and energy.
The meaning of the Hebrew word Kedar is warmth or heat (4). This represents the need to exercise regularly, maintaining a warm body temperature and good blood circulation.
The meaning of this name is “do not overeat(5).” Even if you are eating nutritious foods, you should consume only the amounts that are needed for your health.
The Hebrew translation of Mibsam is spice. In addition to good eating habits and regular exercising, one should add some “spice” and “seasoning” to his or her bodily life, enriching its existence and giving it pizzazz. This is achieved through fine living – eating first rate foods, drinking fine drinks, absorbing the sights and fresh air of nature, enjoying fragrant scents(6), etc.
The next group of Ishmael’s children, comprised of three sons, represents Ishmael’s three-step guide towards effective relationships, both in the home and in the work place.
Mishmah means to listen, to pay heed to. You must cultivate the skill to truly listen to another human being.
Dumah means silence. The second step toward creating a good relationship consists of the ability to remain silent. Your must not always feel that you need to respond to your wife’s criticism; or don’t always have to give an answer to a question asked. Remain silent. You won’t perish if you don’t shoot a response out of your hip; your silence may even grant you unexpected insight. Successful people do a lot more listening than talking.
Massa, which literally means “a burden,” symbolizes the third step which is effective in developing balanced and long-term relationships, namely, patience and tolerance, the ability to tolerate and contain the burdens of another human being, though they may be flawed and imperfect.
Once our bodies and our relationships are in order, we may approach the final group of Ishmael’s five sons, conveying his five-step program toward work and productivity. In this case, the five names need to be read and understood in a single sequence.
Chadad in Aramaic means newness. Tema indicates wonder. Yetur is a straight line. Nafish means serenity, finally, Kedmah means first and ahead(7).
This is Ishmael’s five-step program towards work and achievement:
First, you must be driven to embark on a new and novel path, the road less traveled. You must overcome the fear of failure and be ready to take risks and break new ground. Fear not to be original and creative.
Yet every creator and entrepreneur will encounter resistance. People around you will shrug their shoulders in wonder and astonishment (Tema), criticizing you for an unrealistic fantasy, for youthful arrogance, for immature stupidity. They will predict your failure. What do you do?
At this point, you need to make sure that your plan is well organized and structured, as perfect as a straight line.
You also need to withdraw, relax and rethink your plans and goals from a serene and tranquil state of mind. Don’t allow an inspiring but fleeing mood to define your long-term goals; make sure you have serenely internalized your mission statement.
But if and when you conclude that this is the right path, you need to jump into the project headfirst and not allow the many obstacles along the way to hinder the execution of your dreams. “Move on!” – be first and ahead of the game, because of you procrastinate at this point, someone else will beat you to it.
Thus we have Ishmael’s 12-step program towards good living: hollowness, exercise, nutrition and pizzazz; listen, be silent and tolerate; think out of the box, be confident, organized, thought-out and when the moment comes, don’t look back.
When we reflect on these 12 steps, we notice that one crucial element – perhaps the most important element -- is missing from Ishmael’s impressive list. This is the component of meaning.
A human life needs meaning. When we are devoid of inner purpose, it is extremely difficult to maintain these 12-steps which require discipline and focus. At some point you ask yourself, what is the purpose of it all? This question cannot be answered with getting a personal trainer, learning about effective relationships and working your way up in the company.
Thus, the Torah concludes its account of these 12 sons by stating, “They fell in the presence of their brethren.” Even the balanced life of health, relationships and work that is devoid of inner meaning, might ultimately fail, because it lacks the oxygen of depth that keeps the person inspired and motivated to live well, and to ensure that the steps are channeled for the right purposes, not for futile or detrimental objectives.
Ishmael’s twelve-steps capture an important but superficial layer of existence. It tells us how to live within the rhythms of nature and biology. It does not address our sense that there is something at the core of nature which transcends it. For this we have the names of another twelve tribes, the twelve sons of Jacob, whose names represent the blue print for living not only a fine and balanced life, but also living with the Divine, with the mysterious core of reality(8).
1) Genesis 25: 13-15. 2) Ibid. 25-18. This verse is translated in different ways by various biblical commentators. The translation given here is based on the Iban Ezra, who understands the word “nafal” in terms of falling. 3) Cf. Exodus 27:8. 4) That is why the Hebrew word for a cooking pot is “kedeirah.” 5) Mei Hasheluach Parshas Chayei Sarah. I would be grateful to any reader who can enlighten me how this word signified the lack of overeating. 6) The Talmud shares the value of this. See Talmud Yoma 76b (and references noted there); Tanya chapter 7. 7) This is why east is termed Kedem in the Hebrew language, since the sun rises there first. 8) This essay is based on Mei Hasheluach (by Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Ishbitz) Parshas Chayei Sarah and on other sources.